It’s hard to believe that CityScape, the two-block mixed use development at the crossroads of downtown Phoenix, is nearly a decade old. While built with support from city government and the business community, the complex has sometimes been viewed as a “bad boy” for turning its back towards the street on key blocks. Now, a Mexican restaurant named “Chico Malo,” Spanish for bad boy, is located in one of the complex’s most visible retail locations, a block from the Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson / First Avenue (eastbound) light rail platforms.
Chico Malo’s name most likely has nothing at all to do with any perceived violations of urbanist principles. Instead, it reflects a playful attitude towards Mexican cuisine and a willingness to take some risks in terms of later hours than the space’s prior tenant, which served only lunch and breakfast. The space it occupies is right by CityScape’s popular courtyard with its grass, splash pad, and bike racks. The restaurant has a patio and outdoor bar with a view of those year-round amenities, as well as seasonal events like the winter ice rink and summer water slides.
There’s considerably more space inside the heavy door wooden door that leads to Chico Malo’s host station. A long bar complements the parallel one outside and tables towards the front of the restaurant have a view of the room in which fresh tortillas are made. Turn the corner and additional dining space awaits in two additional rooms towards the back. Those additional rooms may sometimes be reserved for private parties or closed entirely during off-peak hours. The decor is defined by natural wood and high ceilings punctuated by scattered colorful murals.
Chico Malo doesn’t strive to be a neighborhood restaurant serving giant combination platters of familiar Sonora-Arizona style border food, nor does it try to fulfill a stereotype of a hole-in-the-wall taqueria. Instead, its mostly a-la-carte menu and engaging plate presentations define the restaurant as a stylish salute to a broad spectrum of Mexican fare in a slightly more upscale format than has been seen in downtown Phoenix before. The result is a place that can function equally well for both weekday business lunches and evenings out on the town.
There’s no complimentary basket of chips and salsa, but a worthwhile starter for the table is labeled simply “Trio.” The components are red salsa of moderate heat, guacamole seasoned with lime and cilantro, and a third, legume-based component that at one time was a bean “ceviche” and is currently a Mexican-influenced take on hummus. Of course these components are all available individually, but the trio is the best value. A more traditional ceviche, made with a mixture of white fish and shrimp, is one more item under the menu heading of “chips.”
Under the category of “entrada,” Chico Malo offers a bowl of traditional pozole. The rest of what’s offered under the menu heading is salads, all big enough to function as an entree, particularly with an option to add steak, chicken, or shrimp. The Chulo salad tops a base of arugula with fresh fennel, mango, radish, jicama, hearts of palm, and pomegranate arils. The result is a energetic blend of bitter, sweet, and tarts tastes, along with both crunchy and yielding textures, all lightly topped with a drizzle of crema and a quince anise vinaigrette dressing.
Next comes a category designated “para la mesa,” or “for the table.” In actuality, all of these headings are somewhat arbitrary since virtually everything listed can be either an entree for one or an item shared within a group. Nevertheless, this section is home to the dorados de papa, small potato tacos artfully presented with salsas and a bit of chorizo jam. Below that portion of the menu, the heading of “asadero” contains grilled items, culminating in the most expensive items on the menu, a 40-ounce tomahawk ribeye steak, plenty for two, with tortillas and elote.
The “entradas” range from economical yet hearty meals in a bowl to more pricey seafood entrees such as seared scallops. The beef chili colorado and the green chile chicken are both full of tender meat in complex stews with tortillas and garnishes on the side. A whole red snapper with crispy skin is a fish that can easily satisfy two. There are also two types of tamales, each served a la carte: a meatless one with rajas, or roasted poblano peppers, inside and a duck confit tamal in which braised duck meat is encased in masa made with duck fat.
While some of these items also appear on the lunch menu, it’s at midday that tacos are offered and Chico Malo makes it one foray into combination meals. Specifically, any three tacos can be combined for $10. Meat fillings include tinga, barbacoa, green chile pork, and pork al pastor. A diablo shrimp taco is not as spicy as its name might imply. Two vegetarian options add to the options. An avocado taco is a meatless indulgence with its fried tortilla shell, while a cauliflower pipian taco is a colorful assortment of differently hued florets of the cruciferous vegetable.
The two dessert options are a churro bread pudding and a spiced chocolate pot de creme. The restaurant offers a full bar with a cocktail lists that begins with a house margarita before moving onto drinks such as the Mango y Chile combination of sweet and spicy notes. CityScape, regardless of its flaws, is now an established part of the downtown landscape. The development may no longer be the city center’s “bad boy,” but that moniker, translated into Spanish, has a new role in describing Chico Malo’s approach to modern Mexican food in an urban setting.
50 W. Jefferson St., Phoenix AZ 85004